The New York Times, February 2, 1935:
The article was written just after the midterms of Franklin Roosevelt’s first term. His first two years had been a whirlwind of activity, but much of it was of dubious effectiveness in stimulating the economy and/or was overturned by the last few decisions of the soon-to-die Lochner-era Supreme Court which rejected the notion that the federal government had a legitimate, significant role in regulating the economy. The days of successful sit-down strikes like those at General Motors’ facilities in Flint, MI were still a few years off, and many strikes were crushed with violence by anti-union governors deploying national guard troops or private paramilitaries paid by the employers. Federally-created labor boards weren’t working and there was no effective legal framework to deal with what was then known as “the labor question,” the effort to tame the excesses of capitalism, protect the rights of workers and foster a balance between labor and capital that would prevent the excesses of fascism or communism. The left was obviously more diverse than labor, but at a time when socialism and various straings of Marxism dominated the ideology of the left, labor was the core of the American left. Unions–of which too many in the US were ambivalent or hostile to militancy and broader class politics–had been optimistic at the beginning of FDR’s administration, but by the third year of his presidency they were pessimistic:
Delay in labor board machinery and submission of labor casses to the slower processes of the courts is forcing the “rank and file” to press for strikes. At the same time, the chiefs of labor, almost in dispair of making headway toward union recognition in the face of powerful industrial interest and an unsympathetic administration, are pushing legislation such as the Wagner Trade Disputes Bill.
Without some governmental leverage, labor feels its battle is lost.
Labor’s battle wasn’t lost. Despite coming in to office with a 313 to 117 Democratic majority in the House and a 60-35 Democratic majority in the Senate (and four Republican senators who had endorsed him over their own party’s sitting president), Roosevelt’s labor policies had been tepid attempts to nibble around the edges of industrial democracy. In the third year of his presidency, his Congressional margins grew to 322-103 in the House and 69-25 in the Senate, but he still didn’t initially push for bold changes in labor law. But eventually, NY Senator Robert Wagner pushed through the National Labor Relations Act, Roosevelt signed it, the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) was created and became the more militant rival to the cautious American Federation of Labor (AFL) (which was largely hostile to organizing unskilled workers in the auto, steel and rubber industries). With the “governmental leverage” labor leaders had despaired they’d never get from FDR, and brilliant leadership from the practical militants of the CIO, union membership and union negotiating and political power exploded, and with it the growth of the great American middle class.
The Supreme Court eventually outlawed sit-down strikes, and a decade later the Republicans & Southern Democrats overrode Truman’s veto of the Taft-Hartley Act, the single greatest cause of labor’s decline in America. But the NLRA is a landmark of American legislative history, and one of FDR’s greatest achievements. But while he eventually heartily embraced it and the labor movement it nourished, it’s not something that he initially pushed or even welcomed, despite overwhelming and at that time largely compliant majorities in Congress.
Remember details like this the next time you encounter a simplistic comparison of how Obama isn’t like FDR.